Friday, January 8, 2021

January 8th, 1996, Imaginary Friend at Lee's Palace

In an overview of concerts that I've gone to, I can't help but be self-indulgent in my recollections and talk about some of the shows that I've played myself. I have no illusions that those memories hold anything more than a passing interest to anybody else, but the shows I've done over the years are all special and important to me. So with that in mind, please indulge me as I tell you the story of the first concert I ever played. I've told this story a few times before, so my apologies if you've already heard it, you're welcome to skip this entry if you'd like. I have something good planned  for tomorrow that you may be more interested in... 

Still here? Awesome...

So January 8th 1996 I played my first show at Lee's Palace. And that night stands out as a pretty big deal for me. Since then I've played dozens of shows, I've played a lot of times over the years, but you always remember the first time, right? That first time always has a particular resonance and value, or at least I think it does...

Before I begin, let me go back a bit and tell you about my first guitar. When I was growing up I had a magical Aunt who owned the Sun and the Moon and the Stars. And when she passed away she left me some money, not a whole lot, but enough that I was able to take a couple of small trips, to buy some records, and to buy myself a guitar. 

I had always wanted a guitar, I had always wanted to learn how to play, and I had always seen it as some kind of key to unlocking an expression and voice that I had inside of me that I wasn't able to share otherwise. I spent a lot of my youth confused and uncertain of language, unable to communicate to others, and in that confusion I had an inkling that if I was able to play guitar I'd be able to somehow express myself more succinctly, more clearly. I'd be able to share all of the thoughts I had in my head more easily, and in turn that confusion that clouded my life would start to lessen. In hindsight I probably put a lot more value in that idea than I should have, but I believed in it with all the unshakeable surety of youth. And that kind of surety can move mountains, can't it?

Anyway, thanks to my Aunt I bought a basic Ibanez, black with a white scratch guard and a couple of standard pickups, and I devoted all of my free time into learning how to play it. I practiced for a few hours a day, I learned my fingerings, my chords, all of that stuff. I took lessons, I tried to learn songs through intonation, I guess I did all of the things that anybody learning how to play guitar does. Thinking back about those days spent practicing I'm reminded of the joy in discovering how to do something, the excitement of learning something new. It's a magical thing to make those kinds of discoveries, isn't it? 

I'll admit right now, despite all of my best efforts I never became what you would call a great guitarist. At best on a good day I'm a passable rhythm player. But I had a passion for what I was doing, and I fully believe that passion is just as important as talent when you're making music. Add my passion to my passable rhythm playing, and I was just good enough. And when you're young and just starting to play music, good enough is more than good enough.

And in being good enough, I started playing with a guy named Kevin that I had met at Death in the Underground. My girlfriend at the time introduced us, telling me that he played guitar and sang and telling him that I played guitar too and we should get together to jam some time. So we did. And we were actually pretty good together.

If you haven't ever played in a band I should tell you that there's something that happens when you start making music with other people. I've done it enough to know that when it's good a circuit is formed between players, a unique kind of responsiveness that can sometimes lead to magic. And while it might sound like I'm overselling this a bit, I can honestly say that playing with Kevin there was a bit of magic in what we did, at least in those early days. 

We jammed around for a few weeks, getting to know each other and getting comfortable playing music together, and then Kevin suggested that we ask his buddy Mark to join us. Mark played bass and that would even out our sound, make it into something a little more fulsome and complete. We also needed a drummer but we didn't know anybody, so we printed out a bunch of ads and started posting them around the city at places we would go to, thinking that we'd be more likely to attract like-minded people if they were going to the same places as we did. 

This would have been in the summer of 1995, and I figured that it might be a good idea to hand out some of the ads at the Lollapalooza show that year, 'cause, y'know, like-minded people, right? So in between sets by Elastica and Cypress Hill and Hole my girlfriend and a couple of friends and I handed out ads to people hoping that we'd find a drummer to fill out the band. And we did. Anastasia was one of the people that got an ad and she got in touch and we met up with her and everything clicked together really nicely and really quickly.

Our newly minted foursome started practicing at my friend Brooke's place, she used to rent out her basement as studio space with a drum kit, and we started writing songs. Anastasia came up with the name Imaginary Friend, Kevin wrote some solid jangly pop songs, I wrote some depressing jangly pop songs, and Anastasia and Mark filled out both kinds of songs really well. Before you knew it we had a set of about five or six things that we were ready to share with other people, so we started looking for a gig.

At the time, Lee's Palace was playing live music every night, and the booking agent Craig had a pretty open policy about giving bands the opportunity to play. He was a cool guy and when we reached out to him with a dubbed tape of one of our rehearsals he was willing to book us on a Monday night opening for a couple of other bands. Mondays aren't really the best night for a show, but it was our first gig so we took what we could get, and when we were given a choice of dates to choose from I jumped at the chance to play on January 8th, 'cause it was David Bowie's birthday and it seemed like an auspicious date to make our live debut. 

We practiced a lot before that show and we got pretty tight with our own songs, but I had a lot of trouble with a Cure cover that we were going to close the set with. I was fine with the rhythm section in "Just Like Heaven" but there's a kind of ascending lead line that plays in the opening that sets the tone for everything else, and I just couldn't get the hang of it. I knew the notes, I knew the song, I knew what I was supposed to do, but my fingers just didn't seem to know how to do it despite all of my best efforts in practice. It filled me with a lot of angst leading up to the show because I really didn't want my first live performance to be defined by my inability to play the solo to a beloved Cure classic. So I kept practicing and practicing, hoping that I could do it but even on the day of the show I was still fumbling around, and my nerves were getting pretty stressed.

We got to Lee's around 6pm to do our soundcheck along with the other bands, and I'm not gonna lie, that first time standing on the stage where I'd seen so many bands play was a pretty big thrill. Lee's has a history of being a starting place, a launching pad, so pretty much everybody that comes through Toronto has played there at least once at some point in their career, and now it was our turn. That didn't do much to calm my nerves, but it added to the excitement we were feeling leading up to the show. That kind of excitement is a good thing when you're about to play out for the first time and it carried us through the next few hours until we took the stage at 9pm.

And I'm happy to say that it went pretty well. 

We had practiced long enough, and we knew the songs well enough, and we knew each other well enough that we did a pretty good job. Kevin's jangly pop songs sounded pretty good, and my jangly depressing songs sounded okay too (and didn't sound nearly as depressing as I thought they were). Anastasia sang a song that she had written, and then it came time to play the Cure cover and close out the night. And in keeping with the joyous conclusion of every John Hughes movie you've ever seen, I played the solo perfectly for that one show. It was the only time I was ever able to do it, but it was really the only time that mattered, right? For the next week or two I tried to recreate it at home but no luck. That's okay, I was able to do it when I needed to.

Were you there that night? I'm pretty sure that a couple of you were so thanks for making it out, it really meant a lot to us that you took the time to come and see our debut, and now you have the singular distinction of having seen the only show that Imaginary Friend ever played. We never booked another gig and we slowly went our separate ways after that. It's alright though, I'm proud of the fact that for one night the four of us were a solid unit and we made some solid music. That's enough.

I've played a lot of shows since then, some in a band, some solo, some behind screens, and some buried in dry ice impossible to see. But it was that first show at Lee's that really introduced me to the joy of playing live music, and gave me a much greater appreciation for the effort and hard work that goes into putting on a show. That's definitely a part of why I enjoy seeing music played live, I have a good sense of what goes into making a show happen and what it means to be on stage. I have a respect for every artist and band that gets up in front of other people and plays a song or two or twenty. 

My first gig at Lee's Palace inspired a life long admiration for all the people who have the courage to play music for others, and I'm looking forward to someday soon when I'll be able to see people play music for me, and I'll be able to play music for other people too...

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